Published: Sun, January 12, 2020
Sci-tech | By Patricia Wade

Astronomers discover giant wave-shaped structure in the Milky Way

Astronomers discover giant wave-shaped structure in the Milky Way

A newly released map of the Milky Way has revealed an enormous wave structure that completely shocked the Harvard University team that discovered it.

According to data collected by the Gaia mapping survey of the Milky Way galaxy, Gould's Belt is just part of a much larger structure - a colossal, serpentine wave of gas and dust 9,000 light-years long, 400 light-years wide, and extending 500 light-years above and below the galactic plane.

What's more, the structure called Radcliffe Wave - after a Harvard Institute - contains stellar nurseries that were once thought to belong in a ring-shaped band around the sun.

This study was supported by the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (grant no. 1650114, AST-1614941), the Harvard Data Science Initiative, NASA through ADAP (grant no. NNH17AE75I), and a Hubble Fellowship (grant HST-HF2-51367.001-A) awarded by the Space Telescope Science Institute, which is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., for NASA, under contract NAS 5-26555. It looks like an oscillating wave when viewed "sideways" from the Earth but appears straight when observed from above, leading scientists to realize that the Radcliffe Wave actually forms the previously-described "Local Arm of the Milky Way". "The Wave's very presence is compelling us to reexamine our comprehension of the Milky Way's 3D structure", Goodman included. The Sun lies only 500 light-years from the Wave at its closest point.

Zucker, mapping the 3-D positions of the nearby star kindergartens, said: "We finally managed to see our corner of the Milky Way in a new light and to reveal this huge wave in front of us".

"We don't know what causes this shape but it could be like a ripple in a pond, as if something extraordinarily massive landed in our galaxy", Alves said. We may even be able to determine if the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds have passed through the Milky Way before.

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The Gaia satellite was launched in 2013, and has been collecting data ever since to produce the most accurate 3D map yet of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. According to the insight, the stars have formed from two nearby dwarf galaxies known as Magellanic Clouds. The fringes of the Milky Way are abode to the galaxy's former stars. That ram pressure, combined with the Milky Way's gravity, compressed some of the Magellanic Stream gas enough that it clumped together under its own gravity.

A long-standing challenge for astronomy and astronomers is disentangling structures that are present in the "dusty" galactic neighbourhood.

The scientists consolidated the information from Gaia, which was super-exact, with different estimations for developing an itemized, 3D guide of the interstellar issue in the Milky Way.

This finding is a big deal, the researchers said, because it could help scientists figure out exactly where the Magellanic Stream is located in space. In this data-science-oriented collaboration, the Finkbeiner, Alves, and Goodman groups collaborated closely.

Visualization of the Radcliffe Wave.

What they do know is that it does, on occasion, (harmlessly) interact with the Sun. To contact the author, please use the contact details within the article.

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